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After the first day’s explosive inaugural session on the judiciary’s role, past and present, the run of sessions of the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021 (AJC21) on The Right to Dissent (practiced in the breach in our polity), The Afghan Crisis and its Impact, Violence Against Women, Rights of the Child, Accountability or Victimisation? (Moderated by this writer), and a whole host of subjects (21 sessions in all) related to human, legal and constitutional rights comprehensively covered the concerns that Asma Jahangir would have had today had she not left us in untimely fashion. The entire gamut of discussions reflected the legacy bequeathed to us by Asma Jahangir, that indefatigable fighter for truth, justice, and against oppression of all kinds.

However, the proceedings ended on a note that left the participants and the public musing on how things stand and are handled in our country. The AJC21 organisers had invited former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to address via an online link. They had also invited Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry to address the same final session. However, the worthy minister cancelled his appearance when he learnt that Nawaz Sharif would be addressing the conference. Lo and behold, soon after the address by Nawaz Sharif started, the conference’s internet connection was severed by cutting the necessary cables. Munizae Jahangir, the daughter of Asma Jahangir and one of the main organisers, ascribed this development to the habits of ‘rats’, i.e., chewing through cables and such stuff. However, later it was revealed that the ‘rats’ in question were ‘official’ ones. That left no choice but to take Nawaz Sharif’s speech on the telephone, without the aid of any video or picture being available.

Did Nawaz Sharif say anything new or different from his narrative since being removed from office by the superior judiciary and disqualified for holding an iqama(residence and employment permit) that did not involve any monetary gain? Not really, nor was this anticipated. However, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government was so rattled by Nawaz Sharif being allowed to address the conference that everyone from Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan to his ministers and spokespeople went to town in condemning AJC21’s invitation to the deposed PM. Imran Khan thought it inappropriate that a convicted absconder had been allowed to address a conference where the Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmad also spoke. The fact, however, is that the conviction by the Supreme Court is certainly questionable on the grounds of judicial and legal appropriateness (even if appeal against it is not available) and the ‘absconder’ was allowed by Imran Khan’s government itself to proceed to London for medical treatment. Therefore if there is any angst in government circles about Nawaz Sharif now being beyond their reach, they have only themselves to blame (and kick).

The AJC21 organisers have defended their decision to invite Nawaz Sharif to address the closing session, citing their past precedent of inviting opposition (and government) leaders to address it. They have denied the charge of any partisan agenda, arguing they offer a platform for all shades of opinion to speak openly on issues impacting the rule of law and protection of fundamental freedoms. They also pointed out that the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (Pemra) had banned certain categories of individuals from being broadcast on television, but no such prohibition applied to addressing public gatherings. In fact Nawaz Sharif had addressed such gatherings previously without any objection from the authorities.

Why then, in spite of all these obvious but seemingly once again necessary to reiterate facts, has the government taken such umbrage at Nawaz Sharif’s address that they tried to stop but failed? The real reason is the current looming political crisis in the country and Nawaz Sharif’s position. Nawaz Sharif may have been a product of the military establishment, which manoeuvred to bring him to power on the argument that Pakistan’s history was replete with leaders from all other provinces, but not Punjab. Since the establishment felt confident of its political and social base in Punjab, the thinking was that a leader from Punjab, suitably groomed to do the establishment’s bidding and follow its directives, would be a very important departure from the past of Urdu-speaking, Bengali, Sindhi and Pashtun leaders.

However, in their shortsighted manipulative approach, the worthies of the establishment failed to take note of, or understand, the dynamic of power. Having been elected PM three times, Nawaz Sharif’s desire to be vested with the authority that should accompany the highest elected office brought him again and again into conflict with the establishment, with the military at its heart. The core issue on which the two sides fell apart again and again was Nawaz Sharif, as a capitalist entrepreneur, seeing the interests of the country being better served by a rapprochement with India that would soften the Line of Control and international borders to allow the Kashmiri people to be relieved of the extreme repression by the Indian state, while opening up the enormous potential for trade and investment across the borders to the mutual benefit of both traditionally hostile neighbours.

Was this desire for normalisation and economic cooperation with India sufficient irritation for the establishment to conspire to throw him out of office thrice and convict, disqualify and imprison him? It would appear so. The core reason for this perception may be the implications of peace and normalisation with India. Such a development would inevitably, sooner or later, call into question the need for such a large army, on which the country spends an enormous budget out of defence and security concerns. A leaner, meaner army could then be considered better, without sacrificing the ability of the country to defend itself and deal with internal security threats such as terrorism. But a paring of the army (and consequently its budget) would not sit well with the perception of the military establishment that it is the guarantor not only of external defence, but also the internal system of governance to be imposed according to the establishment’s wisdom.

The fact that none of the interventions by the military establishment in the politics of the country have ended well suggests that Nawaz Sharif, despite his failings, has landed currently on the right side of history.

(Concluded)

[email protected]

rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Rashed Rahman

[email protected] , rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

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